About 20-30% of the folks I see in therapy bring a common narrative into our conversations. It comes into the counselling room through statements like “I never feel satisfied with my efforts”, “It feels like nothing I do is ever good enough”, and “I don’t feel like I measure up”. They share an implicit sense of inadequacy, which becomes so troublesome and distressing that they decide to seek professional help. Through an exploration of what’s informing this sense of not feeling good enough, these conversations typically lead to the identification of a particularly troublesome orientation to the world: Perfectionism.
Perfectionism is very much a part of the cultural waters we swim in. It’s certainly alive and well in the parts of Canada I’ve lived in. Based on the insider knowledge that many clients have shared with me, it requires us to strive toward impossible ends, only to inevitably fall short. One person put it to me this way: “I put in 110% effort every time and still I’m haunted with regrets about how I should have done better.” Quite simply, there is no way to satisfy perfectionism’s demands of us, because those demands fall outside of what is realistic.
What do you think life would be like if we all committed ourselves to living totally in line with the rules of perfectionism? What would you experience after completing a bit of hard work? How motivated might you feel when it comes to taking on new projects and tasks? How would you engage with your passions and interests? If the therapeutic conversations I’ve had with people about their relationships with perfectionism are any indication, I expect that we would receive limited joy from our efforts, and never be satisfied with anything we do. When we are held to perfectionistic standards, our efforts simply cannot be good enough because the marker we’re striving to meet is outside the realm of possibilities.
This holds real implications for our mental health. Many of the clients I consult with about these concerns come in to address depression, anxiety, and self-esteem issues. If we reflect on the questions above, and consider how it might feel to come up against perfectionistic standards, pervasive unhappiness, dissatisfaction, and fear are among the many understandable responses to being held to these impossible ideals. These kinds of emotional responses tell us something isn’t right with the present situation (the status quo, if you will). From here we can consider preferable ways of adjusting our relationships to perfectionism.
Roots of Perfectionism
If we are to make changes in our relationships to perfectionism, I think it’s important for us to consider where it comes from. A popular idea in the field of psychology is that perfectionism is a personality trait. I’m biased against this notion because it places all the emphasis on the individual’s psyche, and fails to account for its pervasiveness as a discourse in society. When we look at perfectionism as an inborn characteristic – as part of our personalities – we paint a picture that suggests it’s something we’re stuck with. This can make doing things differently feel nearly impossible. When I’ve helped people unpack and deconstruct their relationships to perfectionism, they often affirm that it’s an ideal they were taught early in life, sometimes by particularly forceful teachers.
Because of its pervasiveness, I’d be surprised to meet someone raised in Canada without any relationship to perfectionism at all. It’s something that we’re not always aware of, but may be operating on some subtle level in our cognitions. With that said, some people have a closer and more distressing relationship to it than others – for understandable reasons. Folks I meet who have been on the receiving end of harsh and persistent criticism at some time in their lives often have a particularly difficult time with perfectionism. Verbal and emotional abuse can be like perfectionism in its most insidious form: invalidating people’s strengths and positioning them as fundamentally flawed. Those words cannot be unheard, and so people with those experiences must learn to navigate perfectionism’s cruelty even after the abuse stops.
Why Perfectionism is Problematic
If we were to personify perfectionism, we might say that it looks at the world in purely black-and-white terms. Through perfectionism’s binary lens, the nuances of life are overlooked and everything is measured according to the notions of “right” and “wrong”, “pass” or “fail”, or “perfect” and “imperfect”. It implies that things are either “this” or “that”, with no room for variance. A more even and realistic view takes our limitations and our strengths into account, without so much focus on what doesn’t measure up.
One of my personal critiques of perfectionism is that it doesn’t create space for us to celebrate our efforts and experiences. Some people have shared their stories of small victories and achievements with me, only to have perfectionism discredit them with negative and critical disqualifiers with a “yeah, but…” In instances like these, perfectionism invalidates anything we might otherwise be proud of. It can feel as though our competency is forever on trial and every move we make is used as evidence against our adequacy.
As a counsellor who believes that people inherently resist adversity, I’ve seen people dig their heels in against perfectionism in some clever and creative ways. When perfectionism points its critical finger, some people remind themselves that they can only do their best and nothing more. Others take up interests or hobbies that go against the grain of perfectionist standards and expectations, such as playing music and creating other forms of art.
Some people’s emotional responses to perfectionism can be looked at as resistance too. Worry or sadness may be viewed at as resistance against being evaluated according to perfectionistic standards. Discontent can say a lot about how someone would prefer to be regarded by others.
I invite everyone to consider what their relationship to perfectionism looks like. Perhaps there is some room to make changes that allow for more freedom and enjoyment in life (if that’s something you’re into). Here are some questions that some might find helpful as they respond to perfectionistic expectations:
- In what ways have you been encouraged to take up perfectionistic ways of living, and by whom?
- What would be required of you to satisfy the demands of perfectionism? How realistic do you think it is for someone to satisfy those demands?
- If you were to devote your time to living up to perfectionistic standards, what aspects of your life might you miss out on?
- Which of your skills, knowledge, or abilities would most likely go unrecognized by a perfectionistic perspective?
- What are some ways that you’ve resisted being evaluated according to perfectionism, if even privately?
- What efforts and achievements would you celebrate if you were to reject perfectionism altogether? Who would you invite to celebrate with you?
- If not perfectionism, what other standards might you measure your life and the world around you with?
What have your experiences with perfectionism been like?
How have you resisted perfectionism’s restrictive gaze?
About Will Bratt
Will Bratt is a counsellor in Victoria, BC, specializing in therapy for trauma and interpersonal violence. He is passionate about addressing stigma through depathologizing human suffering. In addition to writing for Healthy Minds Canada, he runs his own blog on his website, Will Bratt Counselling. You can connect with Will through Facebook, Twitter, Google+, and LinkedIn.